Two weeks ago, CICIG (International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala) revealed that the Partido Patriota (PP), the former governing party of now disgraced and imprisoned former president Otto Pérez Molina and his—also incarcerated—vice president Roxana Baldetti, was engaged in a web of corruption far more extensive than initially thought. Shortly after reaching power, the party, under the direction of President Pérez had established an organized criminal structure that had seized the state, and developed an elaborate scheme of collusion between the local private sector and the state to enrich public servants and grant companies easy access to government contracts.
While the revelations indicate a far more insidious nexus between criminal elements, business and the state than many had seen before, for many cynical Guatemalans they just confirm their deep distrust of politics and the country’s political class.
However, CICIG’s new round of evidence brings a dash of hope that perhaps change in the status quo is possible as people become more aware of the depth and cost of corruption.
The revelations come just as the so-called Northern Triangle countries (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras) are about to receive a large infusion of international assistance through the $750 million U.S. funded Alliance for Prosperity that, rather than being limited to security sector support, seeks to stimulate economic development and strengthen democratic institutions. But given what CICIG has now revealed, are Guatemala and the other recipients ready to adopt the structural changes necessary to effectively channel and apply these funds, to address corruption at its roots?
CICIG was established in 2007 under the auspices of the United Nations to investigate organized criminal networks with links to the state. It is bound by Guatemalan law and must work closely with the country’s Public Ministry. CICIG’s operations have had their ups and downs, as has been documented in a recent report by the Open Society Justice Initiative. However, under the current leadership of Colombian prosecutor Iván Velásquez, it has made important strides in uncovering corruption and eroding impunity of even some of the most powerful.
CICIG’s most important case to date was brought to light in April 2015, when the investigatory body revealed a corruption scheme within the country’s customs authority. That case, named “La Línea,” implicated then-President Otto Pérez Molina and Vice-President Roxana Baldetti, as well as other high-level officials. The massive public outcry that followed led to the resignation of both the President and the Vice-President. Since then, CICIG and the Public Ministry have continued their investigations, and in the following months uncovered more such corruption rings involving high-level officials and prominent businesspeople.
Additional information retrieved through searches and phone taps exposed an even more extensive scheme than originally thought. In June 2016, CICIG concluded that the PP, the former government party, rather than having engaged in occasional (but serious) acts of corruption, was essentially an organized criminal enterprise whose primary purpose was to reach power to gain access to public resources for private gain.
The corruption scheme was simple: TV stations and private companies provided large amounts of money for Pérez Molina’s electoral campaign. These bribes were pocketed by the leaders of the party (the future President Pérez Molina and Vice President Baldetti), and the companies that “supported” them were awarded large contracts under the PP government. While in government, Pérez Molina and Baldetti requested “voluntary” birthday presents from ministers and high-rank officials. By providing lavish gifts, the ministers would demonstrate their continued allegiance to the President and Vice-President, in a sultanistic-like system.
The revelations showed how entrenched corruption was in the Guatemalan state and the need for far reaching structural reform. In the past decades, international donors invested hundreds of millions of dollars to strengthen Central America’s judiciaries, with very limited effect. Clearly, donor-supported judicial reforms alone will not be sufficient to change the status quo. But as of this writing, CICIG is coordinating a national dialogue on judicial reform, the U.S. is making large amounts of international assistance available to the Northern Triangle countries, and the IDB is preparing loan packages.
While judicial reforms reforms are necessary, broader efforts are required to really strengthen public institutions. First of all, investigations regarding corruption and organized crime must not only continue, they should be expanded. Current President Morales extended CICIG´s mandate to 2019, which is an important first step. But it is also essential that the country’s Public Ministry be further strengthened. Second, there should be an autonomously administered judicial career with clear and detailed regulations about the selection, evaluation and discipline of judicial operators.
Third, strict campaign finance regulations should be enacted and closely monitored. Only when the structural reasons for the weakness of public institutions—corruption and the involvement of organized crime—are addressed, will the country stand a chance of changing the status quo. For this, a fourth indispensable element is a free, independent press (especially in light of CICIG´s revelations about the involvement of media enterprises in corruption). Funds for such efforts should be made available, but more importantly we need the involvement of an active citizenry that demands change.
It would be a mistake to think that these issues are limited to Guatemala. Other Latin American countries, and especially those in the Northern Triangle, face similar challenges. In April 2016, the OAS-sponsored Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH) started its work. It is essential that this more limited version of CICIG does not limit itself to investigating isolated acts of corruption, but that it digs deeper to identify criminal schemes behind such acts. MACCIH’s success will also depend on the Honduran government’s willingness to permit an independent professional investigatory unit to do its work without interference.
In this vein, given recent reports on corruption in the government of President Funes, El Salvador should also allow for the establishment of a CICIG-like body. Until now, the country has only accepted cooperation from UNODC to strengthen national anti-corruption mechanisms instead of creating an independent investigative commission.
Last, all countries in the region should take serious steps to tighten the controls on the financing of political campaigns, enact far-reaching transparency requirements, and enable public oversight and involvement. Funders should support civil society organizations, especially those coordinating civic oversight mechanisms, and (new) press outlets that engage in independent investigative journalism. .
Structural problems require structural solutions, more than just investigation and salacious revelations. Will Central America, and the international donors supporting these countries, live up to the challenge?